Sex Sells Family Planning and Safer Sex: Why Aren’t We Using It?

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Written by Christopher Purdy for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Sex and sensual images have been used for years in developed countries to sell everything from beer and soft drinks to cars and hotels, yet in reproductive health we have shied away from doing this even though much of our work is aimed specifically at people who are having, or contemplating, sexual relations.

Can the promise of a better orgasm, or at least a fear-free sexual experience, improve the chances that couples will use family planning? If a couple is not afraid of getting pregnant or picking up a sexually-transmitted infection, will they enjoy the sexual experience more? And if they do, shouldn’t the reproductive health and family planning community capitalize on that and apply the lessons learned by the multitude of marketers who know that sex sells?

I realize that the idea is scary for those who worry that such strategies will promote sex. It is safer to keep family planning and reproductive health medicalized, sanitized and respectable.

But the last time I checked, young people did not call their friends to talk about their “reproductive health” or “contraceptive options.” They talk about their sex lives — and they talk about it a lot! More and better use of language, imagery and presentation of a sensual and even erotic nature will go a long way towards making family planning more desirable, even fashionable, especially among young people who are increasingly sophisticated in terms of marketing.

Perhaps most importantly, people use products because of imagery and the aspirational qualities associated with it. I believe that if we start using the same tactics that have proven effective with other consumer goods to market products that are, in fact, all about relationships, love and sex, we will increase demand for these products.?

A couple of examples:

For obvious reasons, condoms are a product easily promoted with sensual imagery, a fact that is now generally accepted by the reproductive health community. In Brazil and the Philippines, DKT International is using sexy imagery to sensualize and promote condom use. In the Philippines, DKT has promoted Premiere condoms in partnership with For Him Magazine, while in Brazil, steamy TV commercials and a sexologist blog combine erotica with practical advice promoting safety.

In Africa as well, condom programming has evolved. In Malawi, Chisango (which means “shield” in the local language) was launched in 1994 as part of an HIV prevention program, with a brand featuring a silhouetted image of a demure couple with a Zulu shield. It was a conservative brand for a conservative country. But by the mid-2000s, condom use among young men (one of the prime target groups of Chisango) was waning and research showed they rejected this now outdated brand, calling it “my father’s condom.” A new, more provocative brand was developed — a photo of a sexy woman from the waist down, revealing a shapely leg bared by a slit in her dress. The image set off a bit of a firestorm. The National Censorship Board declared the image “obscene” and it had to be taken off outdoor billboards. But it was allowed to remain on the package and in other advertising and promotion. The negative publicity actually helped sales.

Use of erotic imagery to promote family planning (as opposed to HIV prevention) has been less the norm but this need not be the case. In Indonesia, DKT International has used sensual images of a couple on a bed, legs entwined, to promote emergency contraception. Also in Indonesia, DKT has used the promise of a better sexual experience to promote intrauterine devices, counseling men in ads that IUDs do not take away any pleasure from intimacy.

Those of us in global health need to be willing to meet consumers closer to where they are living, thinking and having sex when we promote family planning and reproductive health.

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